Burning the boats
In The Conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar describes a striking scene from the first century BC. The Helvetii — a tribe living in what is now Switzerland — were preparing to challenge the Romans and invade Gaul.
Knowing that if their plan succeeded they would not be returning home, they burnt every one of their towns, villages and buildings. Each person took enough food for 3 months, then burnt the rest.
They did this because “they thought that, if there was no possibility of returning home, they would be more willing to face the perils that awaited them.”
In burning their homes, they took away the option of return, the psychological safety net which they might have clung to, the very existence of a comfort zone.
In many ways, that is similar to the now iconic account of Captain Hernan Cortes landing in Veracruz and ordering his men to burn their ships. The idea is that they would fight all the more fiercely if retreat was not an option.
Likewise, Sun Tzu advised much the same — “When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats and bridges, in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home.”
The self-induced point of no return is a classic strategy because it suffocates uncertainty, it creates cast iron incentives.
Murdering past selves
Whenever I spend time with friends I know from school, there always comes a point where the conversation turns to other people we went to school with. I can rarely add much to the discussion, but I find myself fascinated.
We discuss the paths people have taken; who is now basically an alcoholic? Who went to university and who didn’t? Who spends all their time taking drugs in fields? Who has a surprisingly stable job and/or relationship?
I am always, in spite of myself, deeply fascinated by these discussions.
I get confused by the intensity of my interest. I get confused by my habit of furtively checking the Tumblr and Twitter accounts of people I went to school with, doing it almost without thinking, without knowing quite what I am looking for.
And as the conversation unfolds, a strange hazy figure drifts into my periphery.
It’s the person I was when I knew those people. In truth, my interest in half-forgotten peers is a selfish one. I’m not even interested in the details of their aborted pregnancies and ill-planned gap years and criminal pursuits.
Like a guilty, incoherent drunk text to an ex, that interest is really a way of reaching out a tentative hand to the person I was when I knew those people. The person who has long since vanished and yet lingers.
Sometimes we have to murder the people we used to be.
It isn’t easy.
Our past selves can be nagging, insistent, often seemingly repulsive creatures. They are hard to shake off. They linger in photographs, old journals, stubborn habits, scars and tattoos, in the backs of drawers, the memories of others.
We don’t make it easy for ourselves and other people don’t make it easy for us. You know when someone asks if you’re still studying X or doing Y job or are still obsessed with Z and you wince? Those statements pull us back to the past, reminding us of what we are trying to outrun.
Sometimes our past selves take on an endearing quality. And sometimes it’s good to stay in touch. But I keep finding that the only way forward is to not just burn the boats, to also burn the village, the old home.
Homeostasis is powerful and it’s always so easy to regress. To revert to old habits and ways of functioning. Like a miner hunting for precious gems within ourselves, sometimes it requires dynamite — the reckless courage to destroy something that seemed integral.
I have been writing a lot lately about killing your darlings and nowhere is it truer than when it comes to ourselves. In this case, the darlings are the comfortable habits, facets, behaviours, the details of an identity that need to be exorcised.
When I first heard of people choosing to disappear and start again with a new identity, that there are books written on the topic, I immediately got it. That urge to just go has been so intense for me at times that the idea of disappearing completely is alluring.
It’s a stupid idea though, not least because it hurts those who care about the disappearee (yes, I made that word up.) Society is built on the assumption that people have debts and obligations and that it’s meant to be hard to up and go.
That’s irrelevant. This process isn’t truly about disappearing. Reinvention doesn’t require quitting a job or dropping out or moving to a new country or shaving your head or ending a comfortable relationship or anything drastic — although those are all great starting points.
The real work is internal. As Arnold Bennett puts it in How To Live On 24 Hours A Day, “You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose.”
We murder our past selves here and now, wherever and whenever. It’s not about looks or location or pointless labels.
I recently drove across the whole of the city where I live, and where I have lived on and off since I was eight, that I hope to leave for good next year. As weird as it sounds, I have never seen the entire place in one go, only fragments at a time.
Everywhere I looked, I saw traces of the past. Houses where childhood friends lived, street corners where I slouched during my goth phase, the old churches where I used to do photo shoots for my old site, cafes where I have spent endless days writing, bars where I met interesting people.
Cities are impersonal — ever-changing, grimy spaces where thousands of people tumble over each other. Even so, they don’t change as fast as we do. They teem with monuments to our individual pasts.
My brother and I were talking about people we knew from school and he summed it up as “There are those who left and those who didn’t.”
He didn’t just mean in terms of location. There are those who mentally stayed the same, never putting in the work it takes to think and change, those who stayed working crappy retail jobs and spending all their spare time getting drunk and going to Nandos or whatever. And there are those who have put in the work to grow up, start going somewhere and progress.
“It was in a foreign hotel’s bathtub I baptized myself in change. And one by one I drowned all of the people I had been. I emerged to find the parallels were fewer. I was cleansed. I looked in the mirror and someone new was there.” — Bright Eyes, From A Balance Beam
And before long I doubtless will have murdered this current self and moved on, quit the things I want to quit, changed some of what I want to change.
It’s a common sentiment that people never change. I disagree. I am ceaselessly amazed by the extent to which people are capable of changing. It’s a brutal process at times, but it’s one I hope to repeat many more times.
The Helvetii didn’t take over Gaul, although they won a few minor victories against the Romans. Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, they had to rebuild the homes they burnt. But at least they went all in. As much as I hate twisting narratives for selfish purposes, I like to imagine that they were chastened, yet glad to have gone all in. That for one day, the Romans bowed down to them. They went past the self-induced point of no return, the point of murdering a certain self